Biden’s Immigration Bill Will Do Little to End Death and Suffering in the Borderlands

Max Granger

A bill signed into law by Trump late last year, which increases funding for the Border Patrol under the guise of the agency’s “humanitarian” initiatives, does more to acknowledge the crisis of death and disappearance in the U.S. borderlands than Biden’s proposed immigration bill, which would escalate death-as-deterrence militarization and sacrifice both migrants and border communities on the altar of national “security.” / Publicado el 14 de February de 2021

In 2011, I came to southern Arizona to work with No More Deaths, an organization that provides humanitarian aid to people crossing the vast and heavily militarized U.S.-Mexico border. Our work — hauling water into the desert, caring for the injured, searching for the missing, and locating the bodies of the dead — began in 2004, spanned eight years of Democratic rule under the Obama-Biden administration, four years under the openly racist anti-immigrant policies of Trump, and continues today under whatever we’ll come to call this administration. 

For eight years under Obama, mass violence committed in the name of border “security” went largely ignored by the media, the public, and, of course, by the Democratic politicians who supported it. This was a period of liberal governance that saw more than three million people deported from the country and at least three thousand human remains recovered from the U.S. borderlands. It was a staggering figure, but merely a fraction of the total deaths recorded since the implementation of the policy that caused them: a bipartisan border control strategy known as “prevention through deterrence” which, with the alleged goal of deterring future migration, purposefully forces migrants to their peril.

Meanwhile, border residents and aid workers did what we could to save lives, ameliorate suffering, bear witness, and advocate for the abolition of the policies and agencies responsible. Border Patrol, for their part, did what they could to stop us — slashing the water gallons we left in the desert, raiding our humanitarian aid camp, harassing local residents and aid volunteers, and, of course, hunting down, capturing, and sometimes killing people crossing the desert.

So it was a welcome but also strange and frustrating experience, as Trump settled into the White House, to witness the eruption of public outrage at what was invariably portrayed as a new and aberrant era of cruelty — not merely a deviation from our values as a “nation of immigrants,” but a transgression against them. And even more frustrating still, to watch as establishment Democrats positioned themselves in moral opposition to Trump, as if they had not actively supported the mass separation of families (through deportation), the caging of children, and all manner of state-sponsored horrors which they now, suddenly, so righteously decried.

Eventually, liberal outrage turned its focus to the deaths in the desert and to the state repression of humanitarian relief — repression that had indeed ramped up under Trump, most famously with the felony prosecution of No More Deaths aid worker Scott Warren in 2018, but that had by no means begun with him. Was the situation at the border worse? Yes, of course. But for years, and with so few speaking up, it had already been so extremely bad.

After Biden was elected, a dark joke began circulating among aid workers and residents in the borderlands, which boiled down to some version of: “Well, now everyone can go back to forgetting about the border crisis.” A cynical sentiment, to be sure, though one informed not just by recent history, but by Biden's first actions in office as well — namely, the president’s much-applauded opening act: promising “humane” immigration reform. 

Sadly, but not surprisingly, Biden’s new immigration bill — the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 — as well as his executive actions thus far, do nothing to significantly and directly address the massive loss of life in the U.S. borderlands, and offer little in the way of indirect solutions. In lock-step with the tried and tired political tradition of “comprehensive immigration reform” — the idea of marrying together stricter border and immigration enforcement with slow, winding paths to legalization — Biden’s bill is actually aimed at precisely the opposite: escalating death-as-deterrence border enforcement under the guise of “smart border controls” and the spurious “humanitarian” initiatives of Border Patrol. The full text of the bill is slated for release sometime in the coming weeks, but on January 20 the White House released a fact sheet that outlines its main provisions and goals.

In a strange twist of events, a piece of bipartisan legislation, the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act, passed by Congress late last year and signed by Donald Trump, of all people, arguably does more to acknowledge the mass deaths of migrants in the desert than Biden’s proposed reforms. It also reveals the moral logjam of immigration politics and how Biden’s bill offers no clear or humane path forward. 

Supported by a number of law enforcement associations, forensic scientists, and immigrant rights and borderland humanitarian groups, the Missing Persons bill calls for more funding to assist police, Border Patrol, county medical examiners, and nonprofits organizations in recovering and identifying the remains of deceased migrants in the Southwest borderlands. 

Central to the otherwise uncontroversial bill, however, is the authorization of funding for “more than 170 self-powering, 911 cellular relay rescue beacons along the southern border of the United States at locations determined appropriate by the Commissioner to mitigate migrant deaths.” This provision is nearly identical to the only portion of Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act that acknowledges and seeks to mitigate the crisis of death and disappearance in the borderlands — a provision that also calls for “additional rescue beacons to prevent needless deaths along the border.” Apparently, much like the state violence they allegedly seek to mitigate, rescue beacons enjoy wide support from Republicans, Democrats, and Border Patrol alike as the preferred solution to the crisis of death and disappearance caused by U.S. border policy.

new report just released by southern Arizona migrant justice organizations No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos (full disclosure: I was a co-author) finds that so-called life-saving initiatives, and rescue beacons in particular, amount to little more than Border Patrol propaganda aimed at diverting attention from the agency’s official policy of pushing migrants to their deaths.

The report — Left to Die: Border Patrol, Search and Rescue, and the Crisis of Disappearance — argues that Border Patrol beacons are primarily a public relations gimmick, designed to distract from the agency’s central role in proliferating death and suffering. In a general and structural sense, the very concept of Border Patrol “rescues” is suspect, since the agency, notorious for abusing and even murdering the people they are purportedly so keen on “rescuing,” is directly responsible for placing people in life-threatening situations in the first place. 

The report found that the Border Patrol is at least twice as likely to cause a person to go missing, through dangerous enforcement tactics like “chase and scatter” — the routine practice of ambushing groups of migrants, causing people to scatter, become separated from their guides, and end up lost and alone — than they are to rescue anyone. The beacons themselves — tall metal structures with flashing blue lights — are often confused as surveillance towers or other law enforcement infrastructure. This can pressure people to venture even farther into the wilderness and away from help as they attempt to circumvent the beacons. If a distressed person is able to locate a rescue beacon, the only food, water, or medical resources they will find are those left by humanitarian aid workers like ourselves, though these resources are regularly removed or destroyed by Border Patrol. 

I once encountered a man stumbling down a remote dirt road, socks drenched in blood, delirious from dehydration and on the verge of death. After days of limping through the desert, he had made it to a rescue beacon. He pushed the button over and over, waited for hours, but no one ever came. 

In the only publicly available report from DHS on the efficacy of rescue beacons, Border Patrol’s Laredo Sector reported 119 beacon activations, resulting in zero rescues; the Rio Grande Sector reported 482 activations, resulting in only six rescues; and in the Tucson Sector, where most migrant deaths occur, the agency did not even track the number of times beacons were activated. 

The “success” of the 2020 Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act reveals the ongoing incapacity of almost any public official to consider an actual solution to the crisis of death and suffering in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

Even if Biden’s bill passes (though it faces the extreme attenuation of D.C. politicking and the high hurdle of establishment anti-immigration forces) and, say, Border Patrol installs more beacons and starts consistently responding to their activation, they will remain tools of enforcement that offer a false solution. 

The Biden team’s immigration vision, of course, goes beyond rescue beacons. The proposed bill also offers an eight-year pathway to citizenship for certain undocumented residents, in tandem with a tightening of U.S. border control and the codification of Biden’s $4 billion neoliberal development plan for Central America. Ultimately, it is not so much an immigration act as a regularization act, since it excludes anyone immigrating to the United States after January 1, 2021 and centers on creating new and better systems for deterring immigration, not welcoming it. 

In addition to Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act, the president also signed a slew of executive orders aimed at rolling back some of Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, presaging a return to the more sophisticated, less openly racist approach to border control typical of the Obama era. Biden temporarily suspended further construction of the border wall, put a moratorium on some deportations, and reversed Trump’s Muslim travel ban. These orders are significant, and will provide some relief for some people, but they do little to protect the human rights of migrants or the constitutional rights of border communities. Crucially, the moratorium on deportations — which in any case has been blocked by a federal judge — would expire after 100 days and does not apply to border apprehensions. This is an enormous and much overlooked exception, considering that the “border” includes all U.S. territory 100 miles inland from every country and coast and is home to about two-thirds of the U.S. population. The orders thus exclude current and prospective immigrants, as well as thousands of undocumented residents with criminal records and thousands more who remain incarcerated in dangerous and unsanitary immigrant detention centers. 

A more effective solution to the state-engineered humanitarian disaster at the border would be to tear down the wall, remove the checkpoints, dismantle the surveillance technology, and abolish the agencies that force migrants into the desert in the first place.

*Max Granger is a writer and translator, as well as a volunteer with the migrant solidarity project No More Deaths. He is the coauthor of Disappeared: How U.S. Border Enforcement Agencies are Fueling a Missing Persons Crisis.